What began as crashing on a stranger’s futon has become a industry-swallowing juggernaut. But as the service matures, more customers expect the fancy linens and amenities found at hotels — and a group of startups are emerging to provide just that.
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In the old days, when you booked a hotel room you knew roughly what you would be getting: a certain amount of cleanliness, amenities, services, and comfort, depending on how much you're willing to pay. And as Airbnb gradually takes over the market, a new ecosystem of service providers is emerging, aiming to bring a degree of order and predictability to the world of crashing in a stranger's apartment.
One of Airbnb's triumphs has been creating a fairly trustworthy layer of user reviews atop of a vast pool of rooms for hire that range from some guy's couch to a serviced penthouse. As a general rule, users can book a well-rated room from a host with lots of positive feedback and feel fairly comfortable that things will work out. But the company, which expects to pull in half a billion dollars of revenue from an estimated 1.5 million listings by the end of this year, still offers a mixed bag of experiences, and many believe the semi-chaotic system will gradually become standardized, much like the hotel industry it is gradually swallowing.
Enter companies like Guesty, Keycafe, Proprly, City CoPilot, SkyBell, Smart Host, and Beyond Pricing. A growing army of entrepreneurs aim to drive the standardization of Airbnb and the wider industry, offering everything from cleaning services, key exchange, and property management to a physical concierge desk for Airbnb listings in a given neighborhood. Beyond just piggybacking on Airbnb's growth, these companies hope to be the standard-setters for a new industry that looks set to boom long into the future, and will come under more and more pressure to offer a reliable experience, and one that complies with local laws.
“With Airbnb there's going to have to be some increased regulation on the rooms that are on their site and that consumers are using,” Dan Wasiolek, a hospitality analyst with Morningstar, told BuzzFeed News. He noted that New York recently increased the ranks of its Airbnb legality task force to ensure the quality and safety of Airbnb rooms offered in the city remained at adequate levels. “I think that makes all the sense in the world,” he said.
While the concept of standardizing Airbnb listings the way hotels are grouped by star ratings may be appealing, the pure volume of listings and users makes it a challenge. In other words, how can you create order and standardization among a pool of listings that is swelling to well beyond the million mark?
“They need to have standards, and Airbnb knows that,” said Randy Engler, a former eBay executive and frequent Airbnb host who founded property management startup Proprly in 2013 when he recognized a need for better guest experience among Airbnb hosts.
“The standard of cleaning and room experience, in hotels it's binary, it's either up to those standards or it's not, and we're trying to bring that to Airbnb, we're trying to get that on listings. If you go and check into a W or Ritz you don't even have to think about it.”
Similar challenges have played out at Uber and other ride-hailing companies, where the original promise of “ride-sharing” — an app-enabled version of carpooling, person to person, for a low price — has given way to a much more commercial product, with common standards for vehicles, drivers, prices, and service. It's easy to see the so-called “home sharing” business going the same way.
Airbnb would not comment for this story. But a number of these startup founders told BuzzFeed News that the company is aware of the need for quality metrics on its listings that go beyond just guest reviews. Engler attributes many bad Airbnb user experiences — messy rooms, complicated key pickup rituals, canceled bookings — to its astonishingly fast growth. The startups around Airbnb hope to become indispensable to the company and its users as the market matures.
“When you're growing that fast things are breaking,” Engler said. “That's the thread that is really challenging, because a lot of hosts, it's not that they're bad hosts, it's just if you've never stayed in a nice hotel, how do you have any concept of what it's like to stay in a nice hotel?”
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